High Life

Death of Venice

September 16, 2017

Grand Canal, Venice

I’m in Venice for the film festival that just ended, and as an American humorist once wired his paper, “Streets full of water, stop. Send funds, stop.” What is there to say about Venice that hasn’t already been said or written by better men or women? (Thomas Mann and Jan Morris come to mind.) Yes, Venice evokes higher thoughts, but not this time. I was thinking of Byron as I chugged past the Palazzo Rezzonico where he lived, when I spotted a gondola with five Chinese women on board, all of them fiercely concentrating on their mobiles. “Stop that and look at the buildings, girls,” I yelled at them. They completely ignored me and continued texting or whatever they do nowadays, even in the midst of Venetian splendors while on a gondola.

Venice is now a microcosm of what the world will be like, say, one hundred years from now: full of Chinese and Indians walking around ancient monuments with vacuous, opaque looks, totally removed from their surroundings. Ah, Venice! What a city it once was, anything could happen in it. The Venetians were cruel; only a Venetian could fire at the Parthenon, as Morosini once did, blowing up the most perfect edifice ever. His descendant was a great buddy of mine when we were youngsters. I once asked Fabrizio how anyone could commit such an atrocity. He shrugged and asked why not. The Turks were inside figuring no one would ever fire on the sacred site. Well, a Venetian did.

“Ah, Venice! What a city it once was, anything could happen in it.”

The Venetians also took over the Ionian Islands, which the Taki family came from, keeping the hated Turks away and offering us, among other goodies like titles, a Renaissance, one the rest of occupied Greece never experienced. The results are easy to spot: Ionian Greeks of a certain age are civilized and poetic. The rest of the Hellenes may be made of sterner stuff but are cruder and have Levantine manners. Be that as it may, I feel little affinity with the Venice of today. I used to be a regular at the Volpi ball during the ’50s and ’60s, held at Palazzo Volpi on the Grand Canal. Venice back then was empty except for a few chic visitors and us partygoers. It was, to use an understatement, paradise.

Now, as they say, Venice is sinking, literally, and overrun by the bane of the modern world: tourism. Thousands upon thousands are disgorged every day, and they walk about aimlessly taking selfies, clogging up the bridges, and turning the sinewy narrow streets into Cairo-like bazaars. Great cafés like the Florian are half full at peak hours, the mobs of tourists never having heard of it, thank God. Harry’s Bar was once a rendezvous for the chic and the beautiful but is now overrun by the obese and the ugly. I stayed far away. The Danieli was almost as bad. The Excelsior at the Lido is the only place that evokes, via its fascist architecture, a glorious past.

Showing at the festival was James Toback’s Private Life of a Modern Woman, starring Sienna Miller and Alec Baldwin, a film that emanated subliminal messages for days after watching it. Although called a masterpiece by some critics, I spotted a review in a major English newspaper that had viewers scrambling for the doors. This was an out-and-out fabrication, as I was present and no one left except for the odd oldie seeking to relieve him- or herself. My friend Michael Mailer was the producer of this movie, which will astound you. What will further amaze you is that the same team—Mailer-Toback, and Taki—that shone so brilliantly in Seduced and Abandoned four years or so ago (see Deborah’s Spectator review) has done it again in yet another documentary, this time called Venice Lives. Jimmy Toback calls it a cross between Seduced and Abandoned and The Talented Mr. Ripley. I see it as a light version of Death in Venice, except that I don’t look at all like the beautiful Silvana Mangano, playing Tazio’s mother. Actually, it’s about the death of beauty, and Toback dies in the film looking as bad as Aschenbach did, but a bit heavier than Dirk. And less sweaty because he drowns in the Lido. This is all I’m allowed to reveal.

I also attended the HBO opening of Agnelli, a documentary about the fabled Fiat owner, in which I had a very small part. Not many noticed me sitting in the audience. In fact, not a single one. I guess appearing in movies is not what it’s cut out to be, instant fame. In my case it was the opposite. A policeman ushered me away until the director intervened. The producer of the Agnelli saga was Graydon Carter, and he has also produced Late Lunch, starring Reinaldo Herrera and Taki, talking over lunch about the good old days. It took three years, yes, three years to film, but it’s now ready. Will it lead me to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood where stars leave an imprint of their paws? I wouldn’t bet on it, but then stranger things have happened. Like Venice turning into Disneyland and being overrun by Chinese mobs.

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